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Terry Glavin Brings His 'Dissent' to The Tyee

Is the left too smug? New column aims to stoke debate.

Terry Glavin 18 Oct

Terry Glavin's most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Penguin). His column for The Tyee, Dissent, appears twice monthly.

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Glavin on board. Photo Mark Mushet

[Editor's Note: Terry Glavin is one of British Columbia's best writers of non-fiction, whose most recent book, Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions, draws connections between eroding cultures and fading ecosystems. He terms himself a "west coast conservationist" but is hardly conserving of his criticisms of what he calls liberal left "fashions" on matters such as globalization, environmentalism, and military presence in Afghanistan. In short, Terry Glavin isn't afraid to say the rude thing at a party. And in the ensuing argument, he's more than able to fend for himself. Which is why we are happy to announce he will be writing Dissent for The Tyee.]

To those readers who will routinely find yourselves displeased by this new Tyee column as it unfolds over time, I thought that straight away I should present evidence against myself that would be sufficiently overwhelming to oblige you to say to yourselves, every time you get upset: well, I can't say I wasn't warned.

To those of you who are quite happy to encounter reports and ideas that dissent from the fashions of left-wing orthodoxy: we're going to get along just fine. Dissent of that kind, as I understand it, is more or less what Tyee editor David Beers had in mind when he suggested I might like to write a column here. It's not the only thing I intend to do, but it's why this column is called what it is. So here goes.

I'm taking it as a given that no serious person anywhere within the broad spectrum of the liberal left will be unaware that the big decisions facing the world are every bit as stark and painful as the choices our parents and grandparents faced in the darkest and bloodiest moments of the 20th century.

If you think that the challenge facing civilization in coming to grips with massive ecological collapse, globalization and Islamist extremism is any less existential than the 20th century's agonies over imperialism, communism and fascism, then you haven't been paying attention.

If you have been paying attention, you might have noticed something about the trajectory that led so much of the contemporary left into the dead-end cul-de-sac where it's ended up, so far from the main arteries where the rest of the world marches on. It's a long and winding road that took several interesting twists turns over the years, in and around Vancouver.


Vancouver prides itself on being the birthplace of modern environmentalism, for instance, with Greenpeace playing midwife to the event, back in 1970. If anything I write here should be without controversy, it is in pointing out that environmentalism -- as a separate category of thought, as a worldview that places nature outside of culture -- has been our greatest failure.

Addled by the hubris that something new and revolutionary had emerged from the fantasist Gaia-bothering of the late 1960s, and crippled by a misanthropic view of humanity, environmentalism began by cutting itself off from the long and brave history of conservationist struggles that preceded it. It ended up speaking a language unintelligible to the masses of people that gave it its founding strength. Just one result of this is that we've lost the battle against global warming.

This is not to say that all is lost, that we can't contain the damage of climate change, or at least mitigate it. But we've lost the big battle, the only one we really needed to win. By consenting to the convenient classification of human-caused climate change as an "environmental" problem, the world carried on largely unhindered. But as we should all know by now, this is not just about starving polar bears. It never was.

It's about crop failure, desertification, disease, drought and famine, all now looming over much of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It's about massive disruption in the way billions of people find their sustenance. More than anything, it's about the need for an effective international order that's capable of enforcing an equitable distribution of access rights to a shrinking global carbon-emissions budget. That's not an environmental problem. It's a political problem. It's a macro-economic, cultural and class problem.

Globalization's victory

The failure of the anti-globalization movement is even more embarrassing. It wasn't born in Vancouver, exactly, but a key event in its adolescence occurred here in the fracas outside the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. Whatever might have been achieved for the working poor of APEC's members states back then dissolved in a cloud of pepper spray, and what followed was a parody of personality-cult activism, played out on the stage of all the court hearings and RCMP inquiries that followed.

But the APEC protest did provide a kind of prologue to the 1999 Battle of Seattle. It wouldn't be fair to say the Seattle riots were just a narcissistic re-enactment of the shenanigans of certain '60s-era radicals. Seattle's legacy is a self-contained tradition of ritualistic pilgrimages to International Monetary Fund meetings and World Bank meetings, from city to city, around the world. But be fair. There was also a punk record. And apparently a movie's coming out.

In the meantime, globalization has carried on, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty while leaving perhaps just as many people worse off, and making untold numbers of millionaires along the way. After APEC and Seattle, Canadian direct investment abroad more than quadrupled. Foreign ownership in Canada tripled. China's state-capitalist economy boomed, thanks in no small part to the North American labour movement's inability to force Beijing to recognize the rights of Chinese factory workers. The whole dynamic continues to accelerate the exhaustion of vital natural resources in developing countries. But it also presents unprecedented opportunities for the advancement of human progress.

You'd think there'd be a robust liberal-left agenda to harness globalized trade, to redistribute wealth to workers, alleviate poverty, stabilize the overharvesting of scarce local resources, and open new markets for products from poor countries. Trade agreements could force the spread of revolutionary change and democratization, and the entrenchment of human rights, everywhere.

Instead, we have the spectacle of the celebrity American peace mum Cindy Sheehan hugging Hugo Chavez at a World Social Forum photo opportunity in Venezuela, at precisely the moment Chavez was concluding a deal with the Russians for 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 24 fighter jets, and an arms-manufacturing plant in Caracas. This is the kind of thing that makes it impossible to ignore what is perhaps the greatest betrayal of the historic mission of the left. It's what the great British writer George Orwell observed among certain leftists of his generation, "whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism."

War and vacuums

When the going got tough back in Orwell's day, that faction was in a minority. It's not so clear that it is the minority now. This is especially disturbing in light of the threat posed by the rise of Islamist barbarism, which presents a very real threat, not just to the open societies of the west, but to everything that the left has ever stood for. Just as importantly, it is the most foul menace at large among the world's billion or so Muslims.

You'd never know it to listen to the "anti-war" movement that has taken such cunning advantage of the leadership vacuum on the left in Canada, but war is now actually one of the least of the world's worries. You'd be particularly unlikely to know this if you live in Vancouver, with its noble tradition of massive Cold War peace rallies, but which has lately become such an important place-name on the map of what is unhelpfully described as anti-war activism.

The truth is that ever since the end of the Cold War, the number of shooting wars has been in steady decline all over the world, and fewer people are dying in wars. The world's war refugees are now outnumbered by the world's environmental refugees, although it's getting harder to tell the difference. Nine out of every 10 armed conflicts underway right now are occurring within nation states. They are conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water, food, and oil.

The result of all this is that fully one third of humanity is situated in countries where "failed state" conditions exist, and increasingly, those voids are being filled by Islamist extremism, with all its book burning, homosexual hanging, and adulteress burying. This is not to overlook the abattoir that Iraq has become in the wake of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, which Canada quite rightly refused to join, given the circumstances that prevailed at the time. But no honest appraisal of everything that has gone wrong in Iraq will absolve the Anglo-American "anti-war" left for its utter abandonment of the Iraqi people following the invasion.

Canada's social democrats, incidentally, had a special opportunity to get it right. But we didn't take it. All along, the New Democratic Party was uniquely positioned to make itself useful, owing to its affiliation, through the Socialist International, with the only real "resistance" Iraq has ever known.

What should we have done, then?

For one, we might have listened to our Iraqi comrade Barham Salih when he appealed to the Socialist International council in Madrid two years ago. Salih, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, cried out for help, "to help us transform our country from the land of mass graves and aggression to the land of peace, justice and democracy." But we didn't listen. We were too busy. A Michael Moore documentary was playing at the Esplanade Cineplex, as I recall.

Afghanistan: Run away?

For Canada, the most important front line in the advance of Islamist barbarism against civilization -- and it is nothing less than that -- is Afghanistan. This country, despite the persistent slanders against it, is the most democratic country in Central Asia. Over the years, it's been half-devoured by jihadists, alternately backed by the United States, Saudi oil billionaires and Pakistan's intelligence services. It's the one place on earth where the United Nations, with NATO's help, a welcoming national government and the overwhelming support of the populace, is making a serious effort to hold back the tide of Islamist extremism.

In the mélange of earnestness, dishonesty, confusion, misrepresentation and litany-reciting that has characterized the left's response to events in that brutalized country, one discernable response, especially in Canada, is finally emerging. It's the voice that says, "run away," and there is nothing that more clearly characterizes the left's crippling incoherence than this.

Just look at the strange evolution of the New Democratic Party's position on the question. Initially, the NDP was actually against Canada's contribution to the worldwide effort to disarm the Taliban, which was not only headwaiter to the oil-rich al-Qaida zombies that had decamped there, but was also the most brutal oppressor of Muslims anywhere on earth. Then, while the NDP was the junior partner in Paul Martin's minority Liberal government, it was vaguely in favour of the Afghan mission. Then it wasn't in favour. At least not explicitly.

Then, two months ago, NDP leader Jack Layton announced that what the NDP was really against was Canada's continued participation in the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan's southern provinces, and what the NDP favoured was some kind of re-think of Canada's Afghan commitments.

Then came last month's NDP convention, where delegates behaved as though they just couldn't wait to turn their party into a kind of wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary of the American anti-war left - adopting even the exact wording of what is essentially a brand-name American slogan that refers to the U.S. occupation of Iraq: Support Our Troops. Bring 'Em Home.

In a statement hilariously described as the party's "clearest message yet" on the subject, the NDP then got its own convention resolution completely wrong. The NDP's official story was that delegates had voted for an "immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan," when in fact what delegates voted for was a resolution calling for the retreat of Canadian troops from the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan's southern provinces.

A couple of weeks later, to set the record straight, Layton surprised just about everybody -- including perhaps especially his party's "anti-war" supporters -- by saying that nothing really new happened at the NDP convention after all, that the party's position hadn't in fact changed. But the obfuscation over what it hadn't changed from, and what it hadn't changed to, actually makes some sense in this one respect: it's allowed for a kind of hippie vibe-mongering that allows the NDP's position on this most crucial of questions to be pretty well anything you want it to be.

Defend the poor

I don't claim to know better than the United Nations, the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and NATO about how Canadian soldiers might most effectively help the brave Afghan people in the fight they're putting up. I do admit, though, that on these subjects I'm a bit old fashioned, being burdened by the reluctant conclusion that in defence of the right of the poor to determine their own destiny, and to fight their own way out of poverty, every once in a while you're going to have to shoot some fascists.

Beyond that, I'm not at all sentimental for the dead certainties that once animated the left, and I'm not counselling a return to any of that. But what I do miss is the left's once great tradition of dissent.

We should have more of it. I'll be doing my part, here.

Terry Glavin's most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Penguin). His column for The Tyee, Dissent, appears twice monthly.

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